After Hours

10 simple things you can do to improve your writing

If you're like much of today's workforce, you need to have halfway decent writing skills to succeed at your job. But if you don't have time to work on those skills, mastering a few basic rules can still make a big difference.

If you're like much of today's workforce, you need to have halfway decent writing skills to succeed at your job. But if you don't have time to work on those skills, mastering a few basic rules can still make a big difference.


Maybe you've never penned a single blog entry, never been asked to write a progress report, never had to read over a colleague's work for errors, and never had to send a critically important e-mail message to your boss. If that's the case, you're free to go now. But for most of us, a certain amount of writing is part of our job -- and unfortunately, our efforts aren't always as effective as they should be.

We've talked before about some of the big blunders -- grammatical mistakes and misused words -- that find their way into our written communications. Now, let's consider some of the general best practices that contribute to clean, consistent writing. These pointers are based on TechRepublic's in-house conventions, which are based on commonly recommended guidelines. (In other words, you don't have to agree with them. And of course, variations may exist depending on what country you live in.)

The good thing about following a few rules in your writing, even if some of them seem arbitrary or trivial, is that it frees you up to concentrate on what you're trying to say instead of trying to figure out why something doesn't sound right or worrying that it's just plain wrong.

And there's this: People will notice when your writing is tighter and more consistent. I guarantee it.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Echoes

Bad practice: Repeated words or phrases set up an echo in the reader's head or a "Didn't I just read that?" glitch that can be distracting. Example:
  • Several "but"s or "however"s or "for example"s in one paragraph (or in nearly every paragraph); a series of paragraphs that begin with "Next"
  • A favorite crutch word or phrase used throughout an article ("ensure that," "as such", "that said")
Best practice: Vary the language to avoid annoying or distracting readers with repeated words. Even better, get rid of some of the repeated verbiage, which usually turns out to be overkill anyway.

#2: Nonparallel list items

Bad practice: We often use an inconsistent structure for lists or headings. Example:

We will cover these topics:

  • Backing up the registry
  • The Registry Editor is your friend
  • Using REG files
  • Use a GUI tool
  • Searching the registry
  • Take advantage of Favorites
  • Clean the registry
Best practice: Reword where necessary to make the items parallel.

#3: Agreement problems

Bad practice: Sometimes we lose track of what the subject is, and our verb doesn't match. Examples:
  • Neither of the editors are very smart.
  • The dog, as well as the goat and chicken, are easy to parallel park.
  • One-third of the company are color blind.
Best practice: Scrutinize the subject to determine whether it's singular or plural. It's not always obvious.

#4: Referring to companies, organizations, etc., as "they"

Bad practice: A company -- or any collective group that's being referred to as a single entity -- is often treated as plural, but it shouldn't be. Examples:
  • I wish Wal-Mart would get their pot hole fixed.
  • Microsoft said they'll look at the problem.
Best practice: Unless there's some compelling exception, use "it."

#5: Hyphenating "ly" adverbs

Bad practice: "ly" adverbs never take a hyphen, but they pop up a lot. Examples:
  • We like to avoid commonly-used expressions.
  • Click here for a list or recently-added downloads.
Best practice: Don't hyphenate ly adverbs. The "ly" says "I modify the word that comes next," so there's no need to tie them together with a hyphen.

#6: Using "which" instead of "that"

Bad practice: We sometimes use "which" to set off an essential clause (instead of "that"). Examples:
  • The meeting which was scheduled for 1:00 has been cancelled.
  • The option which controls this feature is disabled.
Best practice: The commonly-accepted (haha) convention in American English is to set off a nonessential clause with the word "which" and a comma. One good test is whether the information is extra -- not essential to the meaning of the sentence. If the clause is essential, use "that."

#7: Wordy constructions; deadwood phrases

Nothing is worse for a reader than having to slog through a sea of unnecessary verbiage. Here are a few culprits to watch for in your own writing.

Has the ability to can
At this point in time now
Due to the fact that because
In order to to
In the event that if
Prior to the start of before

#8: Using "that" instead of "who"

Bad practice: Some writers use "that" to refer to people. Examples:
  • The bartender that took my money disappeared.
  • The end user that called this morning said he found my money.
  • The folks that attended the training said it was a waste of time.
Best practice: When you're referring to people, use "who."

#9: Inconsistent use of the final serial comma

Bad practice: One convention says to use a comma to set off the final item in a series of three or more items; another (equally popular) convention says to leave it out. But some writers bounce between the two rules. Examples:
  • Word, Excel, and Outlook are all installed. (OR: Word, Excel and Outlook are all installed.)
  • Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab, and select the Enable option. (OR: Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab and select the Enable option.)
Best practice: Decide on one convention and stick to it. Those who read what you've written will have an easier time following your sentence structure if you're consistent.

#10: Using a comma to join two dependent clauses

Bad practice: Commas are a great source of controversy and often the victim of misguided personal discretion. But there is this rule: Two dependent clauses don't need one. Examples:
  • I hid the ice cream, and then told my sister where to find it.
  • The user said he saved the file, but somehow deleted it.
Best practice: If the second clause can't walk away and be its own sentence, don't set it off with a comma.

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

32 comments
whiteshark21
whiteshark21

Great article, I always keep myself looking for new tips and ways on how to improve my writing and one of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

jtheires
jtheires

Microsft Word is constantly chiding me for the use of passive voice in my technical writing. Although for some forms of writing, passive voice is tolerated, authors should try to limit the passive voice in their writing, so the piece sounds more conversational.

Refurbished
Refurbished

Don???t assume your original sentence was wrong when you get a message from your grammar checker on it. Mine frequently pops up messages on correct statements. It seems to have extra difficulties with #3, #6, & #8. I always double-check what I wrote, but I don???t always change it.

bright
bright

I start by defining what it is I want to say and then say it clearly. I always go back and edit my writing. Eliminate extra words, keep it simple. If I stumble to read it, I rewrite it until it goes smoothly.

mattw
mattw

No. 2 - Non-Parallel List items. I have read this five times now and still have no idea what you mean. Perhaps number 3 should be "Clarity is of the utmost importance". Or perhaps I'm just being thick.

tr
tr

The three most mis-used sets of words: there, their & they're: "They're over there in their car." is correct. your & you're: "Your doing better with you're writing." No you're not. then & than: "I'd rather do this then that." Aaaarrrrrg. This one seems to stem from use in mathemtics and/or programming. "Then" is the result of a conclusion (if, then, else) or it is a time. It describes a sequence. It is not used to separate two choices. Interesting that it also seems to be a one way street. It may have happened but I've never seen anyone write: "If I do that, than I'll go to jail." A concise collection of homonyms can be found at: http://www.cooper.com/alan/homonym_list.html

tr
tr

"Oh, and another thing I really dislike is..." is just plain annoying. The only persons who would conceivably be writing like this are those who are on Help Desk chat, where there is no time to think about style. Any other writing will (should) be considered prior to making it available to be read. The spontaneity is just plain false but it gets thrown in because people think that it's good to write in a conversational manner. This one takes that too far. Leave it out.

kjohnson
kjohnson

Technical writing is not like writing fiction. Most schools give you some practice in writing stories. Few tell you how to write instructions. The rules are different in technical writing. 1. Learn to spell, or at least use a spell checker. It's hard to believe a colleague who writes that he has a diploma in "counceling." Bad spelling makes you look an idiot. 2. Passives should never be written about anything. The meaning is obscured by their use. 3. Draw a picture, diagram, sketch or flowchart. Don't try to convey complicated ideas in words. 4. Write short sentences. 5. Write out small numbers in full. Don't write digits. (twenty cigarettes, three bears) 6. When checking your writing, misrelated participles are irritating. 7. Distinguish between -ice and -ise words. -ise words are usually verbs, like "rise," and -ice words are usually nouns, like "rice." Cf. practise, practice; license, licence. 8. Don't confuse sex with gender. The rule is that if you don't know what gender a noun is (child, parent, spouse) you can use a masculine pronoun for it. That is just a grammatical rule and it has nothing to do with the political status of women in an oppressively patriarchal society. 9. In technical writing use words consistently. If the thing on the front of the box is a switch then call it a switch. Don't call it a switch in one place and then call it a knob or a lever later on because you already used the word switch today. Use vocabulary with rigid consistency. 10. READ EVERYTHING YOU WRITE before you post it, mail it, print it, sing it out loud or walk away from the wall you painted it on.

Snak
Snak

I was always taught that there should be no final serial comma; that the word 'and', can never follow a comma (nor start a sentence). I was taught that the same is true of 'but'. But (haha) I will put the final serial comma in (and before an 'and') if, and only if, I want to force a pause in the reading, which after all, is what the comma is for. And yes (haha again), I was also taught not to end a sentence with a split infinitive :o)

dackc21
dackc21

Good points for the most part, but with three big exceptions: #1 Echoes You're sort of on mark here, but with an important caveat. The examples you cite can, indeed, be annoying or confusing, but writers shouldn't take this too far and start excessively using their thesaures just for "variety." I see this a lot and the damage caused to clarity far outweighs any damage done in boredom. Remember, we're not talking about writing literature here; we're talking about communicative writing. Whatever gets the message across as quickly and clearly as possible is best practice. Although the writer might be bored using the same key term or phrase over and over, readers appreciate the consistency and clarity; variety for variety's sake begs the question whether there's a difference between different instances and the reader begins to suspect that he or she missed something. #4 Use "it" to refert to collective agencies. This is dumb and not worth getting hung up on. This kind of pronoun flopping rarely gets in the way of clarity these days (unlike the distant past when English was more of a case-based language than a word-order language). When ranting against Microsoft or Wal-Mart or whoever, I may not want to de- personalize that rant by using the impersonal "it." The exact effect I might be going for is to write "they" when referring to Microsoft, but what I really mean - - and what everyone knows I really mean -- is "those bone heads in charge of Microsoft." Looking at English from an evolutionary standpoint, pronoun use is a mess right now because pressure having to do with non-sexist language, collective entities, and even mass versus countable nouns is causing change and evolution right in front of our eyes. Holding onto dusty old usage "rules" that have little or no impact on clarity is petty and counter-productive. I ENCOURAGE this kind of flopping because it's this kind of experiementation that will shake out these in-flux issues when some agreeable alternative finally settles in as common practice. #5 Hyphenating "ly" adverbs Wrong grammatically and wrong stylistically . Some old dusty textbook tell you this was wrong? That book probably included some other doozy rules like "don't split infinitives" and "don't begin sentences with 'and' or 'or." Whether or not such hyphenated adverbs are ADVISABLE for good writing (since they tend to be long and clunky), they're often more accurate than anything they can be replaced with. With that in mind, hyphenating makes more sense than not hyphenating, grammatically. Take "recently-added downloads," for example. "Recently-added" is hyphenated because neither "recently" nor "added" modifies "downloads" by itself. Thus, this is different than "big, blue car" where either adjective can be removed and the phrase still makes sense. "Recently-added" is an adjective modifying "downloads" that was created by combining two words, and thus hyphenating makes more sense than not hyphenating. More importantly, these are easier to read when hyphenated.

DelbertPGH
DelbertPGH

Content trumps grammar and punctuation. A nice grasp of the formalities is nice, but saying something is good. Here's my system: 1. Ask yourself, what is my purpose in writing? 2. Ask, who is my audience? 3. Ask, what do I want to say? 4. When you securely understand what it is you want to write, in light of your purpose and the people you want to address, then say that, and say no more. Extra words and extraneous thoughts are enemies of communication.

avantgarde
avantgarde

Writing is an art. Either you have it or you don't. I do not think you can follow simple rules no matter how many to become a good writer. Maybe it may improve your writing but MAYBE. Some people can write poetry and others fail miserably! Webmaster WWW.SILVER-THAILAND.COM - Wholesale Body Jewelry

rtillotson
rtillotson

I am an award-winning and very busy technical writer. One of the best references you can have in your office or cubicle is the 114-page book "Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style" by Robert W. Bly and Gary Blake. It was published in 1982 and the ISBN number is 0-07-006174-2 (hardcopy). The paperback ISBN is 0-07-006173-4. How did I do with my commas, etc.? -- Ron

vixvjxwiajqm
vixvjxwiajqm

#11 Name your blog 10 simple things you can do to improve your writing, then have a list of 10 things you shouldn't do.

Just Kelly
Just Kelly

I have to say I agree with Markus on #10. I always try to remember that punctuation's original job was directing the pace of a play's lines and (as he put it) controlling the flow, a job I would argue it maintains to this day. When it doubt, I always follow my own personal favorite writing rule: read it out loud. That way, I can listen to how and where I pause withing the sentence, which gives me an idea of how to proceed with punctuating it. In the #10 example, for instance, I probably would have left the comma after "ice cream", but removed from after "the file". That (inevitable) comma-based pedantry aside, this is a very nice list. I'm particularly gratified to see #5, long a pet peeve of mine. Thanks.

tobek
tobek

How about #0: check spelling before you hit send...

markus
markus

Great list, but I disagree with #10. It might be a hard and fast rule with commas, but commas are very useful for better reading. Sometimes a comma here and there helps the "flow" of the sentence.

phairmason
phairmason

What Jody means is that the list items should all have the same structure. If you choose to start each with '-ing', then the list might look like this: Backing up the registry Using REG files Befriending the Registry Editor Using a GUI tool Searching the registry Taking advantage of Favorites Cleaning the registry

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I agree that Number 2, while technically correct, is a complete waste of time. Firstly, it is written in a manner which is so obscure as to hide the meaning from any but the most studious reader of Websters. Secondly, the example is one of the few (a list of titles) where it is acceptable for the series to have different syntax and structure

lmittelmeier
lmittelmeier

As a teacher of writing, I'll be the first to confirm that content trumps grammar and punctuation. Of course, ideas cannot be projected clearly or logically without appropriate use of language--but that doesn't necessarily mean correct grammar. Dialect and audience are key when writing. No one will write an email to his/her boss using the same language he or she would use when writing to his or her child. Arguing over comma usage is silly. There are hard and fast rules. There is also a case for style. Again, if your audience beseeches correct usage, do it. If you blog--your audience may just not care.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You put it after "commas" plural. Unless you were thinking of the one you didn't put after "book".

JodyGilbert
JodyGilbert

...each of the 10 things illustrates something you shouldn't do and sets the stage for a corresponding best practice -- the simple thing you CAN do. It seems to me that not doing the wrong thing qualifies as an agent of improvement. But I guess I could have called it "10 writing mistakes that make you look stupid" and completed my trilogy. Darn! :)

JodyGilbert
JodyGilbert

...Heaven forfend! :> I think adhering to that particular rule is a survival tactic derived from decades of editing technical submissions in which the author's idea of controlling the flow and directing pauses is so mind-boggling that some standard structure is truly essential. I would never monkey with someone's comma scheme in a piece of creative writing, say, or a script in which the pacing and rhythm rely on deft comma placement. The devil is in the commas! j

richard.b.fowler
richard.b.fowler

To many righters are two lazy to actually reed what they have written.

MichP
MichP

If a sentence is so difficult to understand that it needs commas to help the flow, I would look at rewriting it. I usually find this with very long sentences that are better when broken up into two or more shorter sentences.

john3347
john3347

If a comma is used in either of the two examples in #10, shouldn't it have been used to replace rather than supplement the "and" and the "but" in the two sentences? In other words, shouldn't the author have used either a comma or "and" and "but" but not both? (Would the previous sentence here not be easier to read if I had placed a comma between the "but"and the but?) A HUGE modern day writing error that makes a piece difficult to read and understand is the use of teenager text messaging lingo and abbreviations that are so common and so out of place except on teenagers' cell phones.

timthefoolman
timthefoolman

...a summation of my three rules for public speaking: 1) Know your content 2) Know your audience 3) Know your limitations Works for me. - Tim P.S. Jody, where's the article on cleaning the mouse ball? ;-)

DelbertPGH
DelbertPGH

Mark Twain could tell a story in the voice of common people, even using the narration of an illiterate, and cover a lot of ground with great effect. He could communicate a sophisticated message that ordinary folk could recognize without getting bored, and without having to think far beyond their own experience.

Just Kelly
Just Kelly

...is allllways in the commas :) Of course, there's always the method favored (so I'm told) by some in the legal profession of avoiding them altogether. Probably easier to understand, I'll admit, but I imagine it would make for hard reading after a while.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Did you mine 17th Century English for that opening?

MichP
MichP

I agree the "and" in the first example is gratuitous, but you can't make the same fix to the second example. I would fix that sentence by adding "he" after "but".